Tour of duty

The other day I just happened to be in Milan – as you do.  There wasn’t a game on but it had been a while since I had been to the stadium so I thought I would pop along and have a sneak look at the stadium.  I have fond memories of the games I have seen in the San Siro, which include the 2001 Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Valencia, as well as a storming 6-0 win for AC Milan in the derby game in the same season.

The San Siro

I was shown round by Pepe, who answered my questions in a very knowledgeable way, but made a fundamental error.  Pepe claimed that the stadium was the 3rd biggest in Europe behind the Nou Camp and the new Wembley Stadium.  My facts and figures have never suggested that the ground could hold more than 81,000 but he claimed it could hold 85,000.  So we had a little €1 bet on it and I agreed to publish my findings here.  And I am pleased to say that my intimate knowledge of European stadiums has seen me win the bet.  According to all the sources I can find, including the official San Siro website the stadium currently holds 80,074 (For the 1990 FIFA World Cup it did indeed hold 88,500).

So that got me thinking about the other “top 10” stadiums and my trips there.  According to the most reliable source in the world, aka Wikipedia, they are as follows:-

  1. The Camp Nou – Barcelona – 98,772
  2. Wembley Stadium – London – 90,000
  3. Croke Park – Dubin – 82,300
  4. Twickenham Stadium – London – 82,000
  5. Stade de France – Paris – 81,338
  6. Signal Iduna Park – Dortmund – 81,264
  7. Estadio Santiago Bernabau – Madrid – 80,354
  8. Stadio Guiseppe Meazza aka “San Siro” – Milan – 80,074
  9. Luzhniki Stadium – Moscow – 78,360
  10. Old Trafford – Manchester – 75,957

So hands up who has seen a football match at all of the above?  No one – exactly!  Because as far as I am aware, Twickenham has never been used for a football match, and as of August this year when the Avivia Stadium opens in Dublin, nor will the magnificent Croke Park again.

Many readers are still to experience some of these stadiums, so what we have done is but a little slideshow together of them, including some behind the scenes footage from a couple.

So what is your favourite stadium of the 10?  We are all going all X-Factorish giving you, the reader, the chance to vote…

The 2009 TBIR Awards

Almost a year ago to the day we announced the first ever TBIR annual awards (see our announcement and video from last year).  The response was phenomenal and over the past month we have been taking nominations for this years gongs.  And ladies and gentlemen we are now ready to announce the winners (and losers) for 2009.  Click on any of the links for more details of the trips to the specific places.  Scroll down the page for our exclusive video as well or click here.  Drum roll please……

Best non-football trip in 2009
It’s not all about the beautiful game here at TBIR.  We love a bit of Rugby and Cricket too and in 2009 we were privilaged to attend a number of “small ball” events especially those during the Twenty20 World Cup.  So the winners were:-

3rd Place – England v Holland – Twenty20 World Cup Lords
England lose the opening game of the tournament at the world home of cricket and we got to watch it from the best media facility on earth.
2nd Place – Kent Spitfires v Sussex Sharks – Twenty20 Cup Canterbury
A beautiful sunny July day in Kent, fantastic picnic, cold beers…what could be better?

Sums up the day really

The Winner – The Super6’s Day in the Twenty20 World Cup at The Oval
A double header of South Africa, West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand on a lovely sunny day?  What could be better – how about an all access media pass, the company of Danny Last from EFW and our own executive box to report from.  Days like these are rare but when they come you have to grab them with both hands.

Best Overseas Match in 2009
European football is what we are all about at TBIR and we are lucky enough to spend most of our week in the capital of cool, Copenhagen, giving us excellent access to the whole of Scandinavia.  So what games rocked our world in 2009 abroad?

3rd Place – HB Koge 0 FC Copenhagen 2 @ the SEAS NVN Arena
Bottom of the Superliga versus the top in a game full of incident, flares and generally bad behaved fans.
2nd Place –Stabaek IF 4 FK Tirana 0 @ The Telenor Arena, Oslo
Ever been to a game indoors?  On a plastic pitch?  In a press area with just one other person?  No neither had I until I went to the Telenor Arena for this one….oh, and what about a game that is subsequently investigated for Match Fixing by UEFA!

The Winner – FIFA World Cup Qualifier – Ireland 2 Italy 2  @ Croke Park

Croke Park full

An all or bust must win game for Ireland in a full Croke Park, one of the best stadiums in Europe.  Throw in some all access passes, a hotel opposite and a number of pints of Guinness with Dagenham Dan and you have the best Overseas Match of 2009.

Best English Match in 2009
Most of our time we wander from ground to ground watching football in the UK.  We saw over 70 games in 2009 in England (and two in Wales), seeing an average of over 3 goals per game.  We saw some great games, full of goals and incident so picking our top three was difficult so here goes.

3rd Place – West Ham 5 Burnley 3 @ Upton Park
West Ham are having a torrid season so when they went 5-0 with twenty minutes to go few thought they could throw it away..well 3 Burnley goals in 10 minutes almost brought this to reality.
2nd Place – Cambridge United 3 Luton Town 4 @ Abbey Stadium
Luton 2-0 down and reduced to 10 men with 40 minutes to go and boss Mick Harford’s job hanging by a thread.  50 Minutes later they ran out 4-3 winners….Harford was sacked 4 days later!

The Winner – Alfreton Town 4 Telford United 3 @ The Impact Arena

It's all over for Alfreton and the Police Dog makes his debut

Blue Square Conference North is not known for its passion normally but when the Play Offs beckon then its a different story.  The small Derbyshire town of Alfreton hosted a huge game with the home team on the verge of a promotion to virgin territory.  a humdinger of a game, played out in front of a passionate full house.  Seven goals, police dogs on the pitch and some “interesting” characters.  What more can I say!

The Worst game in 2009
Again seeing so many games means once in a while there will be a duff one and it’s not always the nil nil draw.  So the three below stick in the mind for lots of reasons.

3rd Place – Charlton Athletic 0 Nottingham Forest 2 @ The Valley
A freezing cold day and one of the only games still standing but all those who attended wish it was one of the other postponed games.
2nd Place – Millwall 0 Wycombe Wanderers 2 @ The New Den
I hadn’t been to Millwall for years and judging by this performance it will be ages before I go back again..

And the Winner – Malmo IF 0 Orebro 0 @ The Swedbank Stadion

Swedbank Panorama

A move to a new stadium should improve the quality of the games right?  Er no.  Malmo struggled to score in their first few games in their spanking new ground and this was one of a couple of turgid bore draws they played.  Forgettable.

Best Fans in 2009
We have seen the best, been with the best and drunk with the best…but who exactly were they in 2009?  Best fans were the noisiest, most passionate and vocal without bordering on hostile towards other fans.

3rd Place – Drogheda United Fans
Drogheda’s claret and blue army get our vote here for their huge display of support despite their team facing hard times on and off the pitch.  Away to Bohemians on a cold Friday night in October they never game up despite losing 4-0.
2nd Place – Borussia Monchengladbach
A 50,000 capacity stadium which is nearly always full despite their lowly position.  A green wall of sound – quite simply very impressive.

And The Winner is  SCC Napoli Fans

Napoli 2 Udinese 0

A delipated stadium, fans that border on the nutty and a lowly league position…Crap atmosphere right?  Wrong – what a cracking stadium – the noise will stay in your ears for hours.

The Best Stadium we visited in 2009
So after visiting 56 different stadiums what was the best in terms of atmosphere, facilities, fans and location in 2009?  Well lets see –

3rd Place – The LTU Arena – home of Fortuna Dusseldorf
lose to the city centre, easy transport links, wide open concourses with plenty of places for a beer and fantastic views from all 50,000+ seats.
2nd Place –  Borussia Park – home of Borussia Monchengladbach
Another 50,000+ Bundesliga stadium, full on almost every occasion with a rocking atmosphere.  It would have scooped the top award if it was easier to get to.

And the Winner is Croke Park – Dublin

Croke Park full

Sure it could have been the occasion, the event management or the game itself but Croke Park took on a magical veil on this chilly October night.  The Irish got behind their team 150% and it was a night few will forget who were there.

The Worst Stadium we visited in 2009
Another subjective one to try and call although one main criteria was any stadiums that had running tracks!

3rd Place – Frederiksberg Stadion – home of FB Copenhagen
Basic athletics ground, big running track and no cover…what more can I say?  Ah yes average attendance of 12.
2nd Place – Melbourne Park – home of Chelmsford City
I have nothing against Chelmsford City but their ground is a nightmare for fans.  Huge open spaces, strange little temporary stands behind the goal.  Not good.

And the Winner is Goldstone Road – home of Brimsdown Rovers

The teams emerge to a fanfare

I know they are only a Spartan League club, and the weather was appalling but basic is as basic does.  Hardly very welcoming for any fans.  Corrugated stands, no facilities in the stadium itself and an unwelcoming supporters bar where on the night of the game (an FA Cup tie) there was a “members only” event.

The Best Matchday Experience in 2009
When we pitch up at a new stadium for the first time we head straight for the bar to sample some of the local cuisine and chat with a few fans – what could be better.  So what were the most “welcoming” places in 2009?

3rd Place – Bromley FC
A sunny Bank Holiday Monday, a fantastic bar, great cheap food and locals who loved to chat about football.  So good that the Lewes team were still there a few hours after the game finished.
2nd Place – Bishops Stortford FC
A set of fans who welcome visitors, a bar that serves beer at £2 and even Teddy Sheringham in the crowd – what more could you ask for?  Well what about sprinklers that pop out of the pitch to soak the opposition goalkeeper – classic!

And the Winner is…..Lewes FC

The fantastic Dripping Pan

There could only be one winner….The home of Harveys Beer, close to the station in one of the prettiest towns in south of England.  Add in a decent clubhouse and some top fans.  Even when things on the pitch are not going to plan, the banter off the pitch will always take away your troubles.  Visit here NOW!

The Best Overseas Trip in 2009
Not to be confused with the best game overseas, this award is for the whole trip.  The company, the laughter, the madness and in certain people’s minds, the porn.

3rd Place – Naples
Pizza, Pasta, crime, porn, volcanoes, roman ruins and a bit of football – a great weekend break!
2nd Place – Sweden Under21’s Tournament
A long weekend of sunshine and good company as well as a couple of decent games, none more so that Sweden’s 5-1 win versus Belarus where all 6 goals could win MOTD’s goal of the month.

And the Winner is Ocktobeerfest

The EFW Ocktobeerfest team

Absolutely no doubt on the winner here….32 fans from all over Europe, 4 games of football and god knows how many beers and sausages – the video above sums it all up!  Expertly organised by EFW.

And Finally – The How did we end up here 2009 Award
Often we find ourselves in the most unusual places, and take advantage of the situation.  Here are the three best ones from 2009

3rd Place- On the pitch at Bromley FC
Thirty minutes after the game and me and the EFW team are on the pitch practising our penalties without a ball – classic British comedy.
2nd Place – In the Hamilton’s Flat
Long story short, Neil and Christine Hamilton are big fans of the blog and follow our every move via Twitter.  So when they wanted to meet up for lunch how could I refuse?

And the winner is The Perfect Storm
How could you every top a day like this?  All access pass to Lords Media centre for a Friends Provident cup game, then hot footing it up to Wembley Stadium for the Blue Square Premier Play Off Final between Cambridge United and Torquay United, again with a press pass before finally going down to the O2 for front row (literally) seats for the Blue Man Group.  Just pinch me!

So there we have it – time to put the tux away and roll up the red carpet.  Of course you can always revisit the best bits in our Highlights video.

Bloody English weather….

This morning was supposed to be all about Maidstone United…They were playing Histon in the FA Trophy in potentially their biggest game in their history…but the rain started falling and at 2pm the game was off.  With no time to implement plan B I had to endure a shopping trip and Radio 5Live as one of the most predictable results of the season filtered through my head (Birmingham City 1 West Ham United 0, scorer Lee Bowyer @ 40-1). Very disappointing indeed as I had travelled back from my Christmas party and awards ceremony in Copenhagen still wearing by black tie for the occasion.

So not wanting to leave you all hanging, and still finishing off a couple of other blog posts I thought I would do a quick update on a couple of our featured teams this season from the blog..

HB Køge
Our friends from the south of Copenhagen’s season didn’t improve much from when we was there two months ago (see here for our trip).  After their home defeat to the mighty FC Copenhagen in October they drew two and lost four games, leaving them in bottom place with 8 points at the Christmas break.  However, their defensive issues have been sorted and each game as been close with all four defeats being by a single goal.  But there is a bit of good news on the horizon.  Due to a fortunate draw they do have a chance of glory still in the Ekstra Danish Cup.  A couple of wins against lower league teams have put them into the quarter-finals where they will be playing OB in April.  With Brondby and FCK out, they are only two wins off a spot in the Europa League.

Odense BK
Our other featured Danish team continues to impress though.  As well as making it through to the quarter finals of the cup they went into the long winter break still top of the league, leading FCK by a single point.  With Roy Carroll still inspiring them in goal and Peter Utaka heading the scoring charts in the league, Fionia Park is not a place many teams want to visit.  We did, back in October and we loved it!
Since then the club have won four and drawn two goals, but did lose their last game before the break to FCK.  Interesting times in the second half of the season we think.

Bohemian FC
When we were in Dublin for their game against Drogheda United, Bo’s trailed Shamrock Rovers by a couple of points having just lost to them.  After the game lady luck played her hand, and whilst Shamrock faltered, Bo’s form was top draw, winning four and drawing one game to take the title by four points.
Our friends from Drogheda also found some form in the end and stayed up as Bray were relegated.

Durham City
Played 17 lost 17 was the story last month for Durham City in the Northern (Unibond) First Division.  It is now played 20 lost 20 and the team followed up their 11-0 defeat to the now (defunct) Kings Lynn, with a 7-0, a 7-1 and a 4-0 defeat.  However, they did run Frickley Athletic close with a 3-2 two weeks ago.  The players continue to play with spirit and professionalism that is earning them praise from all querters.

Brimsdown Rovers
Despite exiting the FA Cup in the qualifying stages, the team from north London continues its journey to Wembley on another front as they are now in the last 32 of the FA Vase where they will host Daventry Town in January.

And finally, we covered some of the bigger teams in our domestic leagues.  West Ham United is a constant source of jokes and we are almost certain to go into Christmas in the relegation zone and with Dean Ashton, our great white hope having announced his retirement from the game.  Lewes FC go from strength to strength on and off the pitch.  Another fine performance away in the FA Trophy to Hampton & Richmond sees them in the draw (albeit with a replay) for the 2nd round and one defeat in seven has seen the team start to climb the table with the tax man once again satisfied with the financial situation.  Luton Town continue to flounder after the sacking of Big Mick Harford back in September and despite still being in the FA Cup, they are outside the playoff zone in the Blue Square Premier and out of the FA Trophy.

So there we have it – a quick fill in post thanks to the weather!

The Fat lady sang in Black Pool

Up until a couple of months ago this weekend was going to be spend in the wonderful city of Kiev, watching England put the finishing touches to their World Cup qualifying campaign against Ukraine. Then a couple of things happened.  Firstly, the Ukranian FA was put on the spot by UEFA concerning arrangements for Euro2012 that they were co-hosting with Poland. Concerned by the lack of progress on building work on their four stadiums, UEFA issued an ultimatum to Ukraine. Start digging or the tournament goes to Poland, lock, stock and vodka barrel. Kiev was the main issue – one of Europe’s ten largest stadiums, the Olympic Stadium was in urgent need of an overhaul, especially as it was due to hold the final of the tournament in June 2012. As work hasn’t started UEFA specifically pointed out the short comings and so the chances of England playing their final away game in the group became slim to say the least.

But they flately refused to name an alternative venue. Donestk was the favourite, with Lviv the second choice. Both of these were doable in terms of air transportation. Oh how we all laughed when they announced the venue as Dnpiropetrovsk- a location some 300 miles away from the capital, and a city without a commercial airport.

Of course our friends at Thomson, the FA’s latest money making partner wasted no time in launching their “official” packages at just £569 for a day trip – hardly fair considering the money spent in this qualifying campaign already.  Their USP was that they were allowed permission to fly direct to the city, although this was not enough to fill a plane and with three days still to go to the game they had seats still available – shame that.

Secondly, I had grown out of love with following England abroad. Too many wankers to pardon the pun. Too many so called “fans” who wanted to travel to drink in the Irish Bar, abuse the locals, try and engage in “banter” with the local football fans and generally do very little of actually supporting the team in the stadium. The degeneration of the EnglandFans message board is a case in point, with anyone who offers decent advice or information about new places, or asks a simple question getting abuse for their troubles. It had got to the point where I simply could not be bothered to travel.  Finally, England had qualified. Ukraine at best could hope for a Play Off spot but with Croatia playing Kazakhstan needing just two points for a play off spot it seemed a fruitless task. Hard to see many of the players actually trying their hardest for this one.

I was not alone. I knew of at least a dozen EnglandFans in the same boat, disillusioned with the FA. Dagenham Dan was one such fan and he suggested we try something different. What about Dublin for Ireland v Italy?  The game was being played at Croke Park – tick, never done that one. Flights were just £38 each – tick, bargain. Croke Park hotel secured – tick. Friday night league game anyone – tick. So all the makings of a decent weekend away. Press passes secured early doors meant that we also built in some cultural time alongside the Guinness, football and of course the lovely Irish ladies.

But first we had to endure a slice of service Ryanair style.  No faults with the actual service on this occasion, although the 100% Eastern European crew (Maric, Stefanov, Vlad, Margeriz etc) did their best to scowl at us as we boarded.  Our dear captain also needed reminding on numerous occasions when to turn the seat belt sign on and off and got a ticking off from the senior cabin crew make up woman for turning it on at random as we passed over Redditch.  Perhaps he, like Dan and I reacted as if they had been presented with a bill for a glass of  “champagne” in a Hungarian gentlemen’s club (sorry an in-joke there for those who attended the 2008 GroupNBT Sales Incentive trip to Budapest and visited THAT bar) when he saw the price of refreshments on board our flight of fancy.  Are you sitting down?  Then I will summarise:-

A Cup-A-Soup (you know those things you buy in packs of 5 for £1.30 in the supermarket) – £3.25
A SMALL tub of Pringles (sold at 2 for £1.89 for the large tub in most Tesco’s) – £2
A Bag of Mini-Cheddars – £1.80
A bottle of water – £2.70
A mini can of Pepsi – £1.60
A small can of Carlsberg – £4.05 (approximately twice the price per volume I paid in Oslo, the most expensive city in the world on Tuesday)
And finally, ladies and gentlemen may I introduce you to a 330ml can of Pear cider for just £5.40

After fleecing most people for their food and drink they introduced us to their latest product.  Fed up with promoting the “Bullseye Baggies” (premium spirits in a sachet at only £4.50) they pulled out “Smokeless Cigarettes” for those passengers who couldn’t get through the flight without their addiction – for Christ sake it is a 65 minute flight!  Still a few people coughed up their £6 for a pack of 20 which looked suspiciously like those candy ones you used to buy when you were 12 to make yourself look hard.

A bus and the a twenty minute walk found us outside our hotel, the Croke Park Hotel, which was errr opposite Croke Park.  Our room looked out onto the main entrance and officially became “The nearest hotel I have stayed to a football ground, without being in a football ground” – quite an honour on TBIR I can tell you!  We had to try and track down our accreditation, which proved difficult as we were sent from one side of the stadium to the other, before Seamus eventually said we had to come back at 3pm tomorrow, but we could come back later for the Italian “walkabout”.

So we headed off to the city centre in the pouring rain and did what everyone does in Dublin, headed into a bar in Temple Bar and paid €5 for a pint of Guinness.  Did it taste any different to at home?  Not really but it bloody well should’ve done!  Filled with food (from the €5 Burger factory) and good spirits from the musician in the Temple Bar we walked westwards to visit St James’s Gate and get some pictures in front of the famous Guinness sign.  No time for the tour today as we had a date with 18 Italians, all male I’m afraid.  Yes we were back for the official Italian Team Walkabout.  We headed back to the stadium where a security guard asked who we were, then secretly wrote our names down on a bit of paper and whispered we were on his list (Of course we were – you just wrote our names down!) and we could proceed.  We stood, along with a dozen or so other media types on the far side of the pitch whilst the Italians stood on the near side, looking very stylish in their grey jackets and shoulder bags looking completely uninterested, or Italian as we would more commonly say.  They stayed out for 30 minutes, obviously confirming it was a proper pitch and not one made of cheese and then went back inside.  Dan and I nipped back to the hotel, bagged a taxi and told him to “Go West” to Dalymount Park, home of Bohemians.

Bohemians 4 Drogheda United 0 – Dalymount Park – Friday 9th October 7.45pm

The Drogs

The Drogs

Two seasons ago this would have been a championship decider. Two season ago Drogheda came without a hairs breadth of a post of knocking out the mighty Dynamo Kiev of the Champions League qualifying (playing the second leg at Bohemians home ground).  The Irish League Champions had a bright future, or so they thought.  Just a few months later they went into administration (called examinership in Ireland) and were docked 10 points, killing off any hope of a title and opening the door to their finest talent to walk away.  Bohemians took their chance to retain top spot and won the 2008 Irish league and nearly created their own Champions League upset this season with a narrow defeat to Red Bull Salzburg.

We pulled up in a cab, just a mile down the road from Croke Park and went through the gate into the ground.  Well, when we say through a gate it was more of a door where a bloke with a bucket just collected money and us with tickets were manhandled inside.  We went and sat with the away fans, simply because of the noise they were making and the colours they were displaying – Claret and Blue.  The Drogheda fans are known throughout Ireland for their passionate (but harmless) support.  The Famous45 Ultras travel all over the country to watch their team and made us very welcome especially when they found out that I was a West Ham fan, as a number of them also followed the Hammers, apart from one fan in front of us who revealed his Spurs shirt to us (He wasn’t that bad though as he then shared his Curry Chips with us).  Chaps you can be very proud of the support you give to your team.

The game wasn’t that good, and the surroundings are quite desperate.  Dalymount Park is really showing its age.  Only two sides of the stadium are in use – the main covered stand and a shallow uncovered stand behind one goal.  The rest is left empty.  They club had hoped by now to have moved to a new stadium near the airport but the construction is being delayed by a number of legal issues.  Bohemians finally broke the deadlock on twenty seven minutes when Byrne capitalised on some slack defending and rolled the ball into the net.  Highlight of the half was a young kid, specky twat we will call him, who ran along the row of seats doing the “V” signs to the away fans.  Hilarious and in other situations he would have got a big slap.  One became two a few minutes later when the impressive Ndo volleyed over his shoulder in off the underside of the bar.

Left back Powell scored the goal of the game in the 54th minute when his miscued cross flew over the keeper and into the net.  He duly obliged us with a photo opportunity and slide down towards us, nearly making me drop my curried chips.  By this stage we had been joined by a motley crew.  We had a dozen or so Italians, taking an opportunity of a game before the main attraction tomorrow and they had dressed the part.  Stone Island and D & G were the order of the day.  And then we had the young boys who were keen to trying to invade the pitch or swap their Primark finest for the Italians fine togs.  You had to admire their cheek and when Crowe scored a fourth in injury time they decided to run along home.  We followed suit, heading back to the hotel and a fine pint of Guinness (the best of the weekend actually) in the trendy hotel bar before retiring to bed.

So after a fantastic breakfast, which incidentally went straight into the Fuller Hotel Breakfast Hall of Fame (The award for the 5 best hotel breakfasts in the world with number 1 still being held by the Emperador in Madrid from 1999) we headed south to take a peak at preparations on the Aviva Stadium, or Lansdowne Road for those who are Naomi Klein fans.  The stadium is still a building site (doh, of course) but is taking shape nicely and is due to open officially in August next year for a sell out game versus Argentina.  It has already been given the honour of hosting a major European final when the Europa League final  comes to town in May 2011.  With the Irish white pudding still sitting heavily we opted for the taxi option for our next venue on the whistle stop tour of Dublin.  Or should I say Blackpool?  For it seems that according to our latest chauffeur the city is actually named Black Pool which was a tributary of the Liffey just about where Dublin Castle is today and used to be used as a mooring point by those pesky Vikings when they popped in for a quick plunder, pillage and a Guinness.  With such a stunning piece of information in my mind I failed to notice on alighting the cab that I had dropped my glasses – you know those things that mean that I can actually make out players on a football pitch from 100 yards up in the sky – so not important then at all!

Kilmainham Gaol is one of the most visited sites in the city, and the most popular that does not involve alcohol.  It is an amazing place, full of history (some of which does not fill us Brits with pride I can tell you) and very eerie in places.  The more modern part of the gaol was used in films such diverse as In the Name of The Father, Michael Collins, The Italian Job and The Face of Fu Manchu.  Culture over for a few hours we headed east back to the Guinness Storehouse for our €15 pint of the black stuff.  The “Guinness Experience” has changed dramatically over the years and is now a multi-million pound tourist experience in its own right.  Essentially we wanted to get to the Gravity Bar for the view of the city, and of course our pint of the black stuff.  So we enjoyed a moment – Dan and I at one of the highest points in the city tasting a real bit of Italy…..along with hundreds of foreigners squeezed in the bar.  Hardly atmospheric!

Over a barrell

Over a barrell

After we had completed our complex swapping of hotels (the Croke Park price had now gone up to €279 for the night) we headed back to the city for the final part of the “big 3” – the Jameson Whiskey Tour.  Somehow we managed to get on a tour with a dozen Spanish, a dozen Italian and a few other nationalities who between them could understand 1 in every 20 words our very cute Bridget (I haven’t got the foggiest what her name was but she deserved to be called such a lovely name) and so we essentially enjoyed our own private commentary cumulating in a drop of the hard stuff, which shamelessly Mr Campbell drank with Coke!  Take the man out of Dagenham but Dagenham stays in the man!!!  We were also unsurprised to hear of the events in Ukraine, firstly that Rio Ferdinand had cost his country another goal but the game had been held up due to crowd “issues”, which of course would be swept under the table by Mr Blatter or even more realistically somehow blamed on the travelling English fans.

So off to the cathedral of Croke Park.  We were whisked up to the 7th floor aka God’s Waiting Room where we expected exquisite canopies of the finest Dublin Bay prawns or at least some tender Irish beef.  Instead we had a choice of Chicken and stuffing, BLT or Ham salad – sandwiches.  We had been starving ourselves all day for some inferior M & S sandwiches.  Still, I reminded myself, Football was the winner here and so we headed upstairs for our seats for the main event.

Republic of Ireland 2 Italy 2 – Croke Park – Saturday 10th October 8pm

The final score

The final score

National anthems, salutes, team announcements and the like out of the way a massive cheer went up, both to signify the fantastic 4-1 victory for Cyprus that had guaranteed the Irish 2nd place but more importantly as a rally call for Trapp’s men to rise to the occasion and record a notable scalp.  And what a start.  Noise levels had been cranked up to 11 when on nine minutes a free kick on the right was pulled back to the edge of the box and Glenn Whelan hit the ball better than he had ever done and it was 1-0 to the Irish.

Passion took them through the next fifteen minutes without Shay Given having to make a save.  Then the Italians turned up the heat in the twenty fifth minute when a smart Grosso shot got the first save of the game out of Shay Given.  But just thirty seconds later it was 1-1 as a powerful Camoranesi header from a corner was too much for Given to keep out.

Half time and honours were even and news started filtering through of the next wave of teams now able to the officially be robbed in South Africa next year.  Denmark (top work chaps), Germany, Ivory Coast and Serbia had all guaranteed their spell in a police station filling out pointless forms, with Bosnia, France, Russia and Greece ensuring a play off spot.  So not the easiest of teams to play if Ireland did finish in second place.  Italy started the second half the stronger and had the ball in the net after 47 minutes but the goal was ruled out for offside.

It was stalemate for most of the rest of the second half.  The odd cynical Italian foul here, the odd negative sidewards pass from the Irish there but it exploded into life with just 2 minutes remaining when Sean St Leger dived low to head home a Stephen Hunt free kick.  The joy of a whole nation was clear to see as everyone to a man jumped in the air to celebrate.  The Italians still saw time on the clock and for the first time in an hour stepped up their game and played a patient passing move up the pitch, finding Gilardino on the edge of the box and he broke the Irish hearts again, levelling the scores and sending the Italians through to South Africa, and meaning the Irish had to go onto the pot with the likes of Russia and Bosnia to fight it out for one of the final four European spots.

So after the press conferences, bizarrely for an International game both done in English and Italian by both managers we were off back to our little hotel.  We looked on enviously at the Croke Park Hotel as we wandered past it, with the party in full swing and headed north in a taxi.  We got out of our cab and were immediately propositioned by two girls who with heavy make up and short skirts could easily pass for 12 or 13, drinking a strange coloured liquid out of Fanta bottles (it could have actually been Fanta but that would ruin the story).  They offered a “Saturday night special” which I assumed involving them coming up to our room before nicking our stuff and then claiming we had tried it on with two underage girls – I don’t think our case would look that good in a Catholic country so I threw back my best Danish and disappeared into the bar for one final pint of the black stuff.  I never knew Blackpool could be so much fun!